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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)? Signs and Symptoms.

Updated on December 27, 2015
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Jo has been an ITU nurse at the London North West NHS Trust for 14 years. She obtained her RN at University College London Hospital.

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome should not be confused with the more severe inflammatory conditions such as Crohn's disease and Ulcerative colitis.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS, or spastic colon) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. It is a functional disorder, there is a problem with the function of part of the bowel, but the structure remains normal, even when viewed under a microscope.

IBS can occur in anyone of any age, but most commonly show in young adults and teenagers. It is twice as common in women as in men, 1 in 5 people in the UK and 1 in 6 in the US are thought to have symptoms of this disorder or will at some stage in their life.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • Abdominal pain and discomfort, are the primary symptoms of IBS, pain is usually associated with frequent diarrhoea and constipation and a change in bowel habits. The length of each episode of pain can vary, from mild to severe from person to person, and also in the same individual at different times. But the pain eases, with the passing of wind or stool. Individuals with symptoms of IBS often describe the pain as spasm or colic.
  • Bloating and gas may cause the abdomen to feel swollen, distended and full.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux ( backflow of the content of the stomach into the esophagus) and belching
  • Diarrhoea and Constipation, people with IBS may switch between constipation and diarrhoea or mostly have one or the other; they are said to be Diarrhoea -predominant (IBS-D), constipation predominant (IBS-C) or with alternating stool pattern (IBS-A or pain-predominant). In some people, IBS may develop acutely, following an infectious illness with two or more of the following, a fever, vomiting, diarrhoea or a positive stool culture and is called, "post-infectious IBS" (IBSPI). In about 1 in 6 cases, the onset of symptoms appears to follow an episode of gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). Most people, however, will not fit snugly into any one category, and symptoms will often overlap. Diarrhoea consists of frequent loose, watery stools with an urgent need to empty the bowel. This urge can be extremely hard to control. With constipation, there is fewer bowel movement and difficulty in passing stool, this causes straining, and cramps with little or no stool passed. In some cases, the symptoms may worsen for a few weeks or even months, then decrease for a while. For others, it can be present almost continuously. Passing blood in your stool is NOT a symptom of IBS, and your doctor should be informed if this should happen ASAP.
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tiredness
  • Heartburn
  • Bladder symptoms

Causes of IBS
Why people get IBS, is unknown, it is possible, that over activity of part of the bowel may contribute to the condition.
As food passes through the digestive system, from the mouth through to the anus, regular contractions by the muscles of the intestine may become abnormal or overactive giving rise to the symptoms of IBS.

The area of the bowel in which the abnormality occurs determines whether the result will be diarrhoea or constipation, however, the cause of the over activity is not clear. It has been associated with overactivity of the nerves of the colon. About 50 percent of people with IBS can associate the onset of their symptoms with a stressful life event, the condition becoming worse with anxiety and stress.

In a small number of cases, intolerance to certain foods may give rise to their symptoms.
People on antibiotics may find their symptoms worsens, as the antibiotic kill off the 'good' bacteria known to protect the gut.

Treatment
The aim of treatment is to relieve the symptoms.

  • Lifestyle changes can have an effect. Regular exercise and improvement in sleeping habits can help to reduce anxiety and reduce IBS symptoms.
  • Diet may play a part, but since this condition differs from person to person, no specific diet can be recommended, however, the following changes to diet may help.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that will stimulate the intestines, such as caffeine, tea or colas. If you find that certain foods trigger your symptoms, discuss it with your doctor. Your doctor may wish to refer you to a dietitian, who will advise on the use of exclusion diet that may work for you. Foods most commonly known to cause IBS symptoms in the UK are bread and cereals made from wheat, rye and barley, dairy products, onions and caffeine-rich drinks. It may help to keep a food and lifestyle dairy for 2-4 weeks to monitor you symptoms and activities.
  • Drink at least 8 cups of fluid per day, preferably water
  • Avoid large meals, missing meals or leaving long gaps between meals
  • Reduce you intake of alcohol
  • Stop smoking
  • Probiotics, there is evidence to show that probiotics (good bacteria) may help to reduce symptoms of IBS
  • To reduce bloating and gas, try increasing your intake of oats, i.e., porridge or oats base breakfast cereal
  • Increase fiber in the diet may improve constipation but may cause increase bloating. The were once recommendation that a high fiber diet was useful for reducing the symptoms of IBS. However, there are also several conflicting research studies that seem to be confusing the issues. Get advice from your doctor or healthcare provider, they should have access to the most current and relevant research findings and recommendations. Always discuss over the counter medication with you doctor before taking them.

Medications: your doctor may prescribe some of the following;

  • Anticholinergic to control intestine muscle spasms, take approximately 30 min. Before eating
  • Laxatives for the treatment of constipation
  • Loperamide for the treatment of diarrhoea
  • Low doses of tricyclics antidepressant to help relieve intestinal pain, this need to be taken regularly, and not as required. A tricyclic antidepressant is usually only advised in cases where symptoms are severe and frequent and are not responding to other treatments.

In conclusion, Irritable bowel syndrome does no permanent harm to the intestine and do not lead to more severe disease such cancer. It is not a life-threatening condition, although IBS may be lifelong. Symptoms of IBS can be very disabling for some people, impacting on their ability to socialize, work and to travel. However, the symptoms can be relieved with the right management and treatment.

The relationship between the mind, brain and the nervous activity of the bowel is a complex one, and psychological treatment may have a role to play in some cases.




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© 2012 Jo Alexis-Hagues

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    • Aelbarsha profile image

      Abdelhakim Elbarsha 23 months ago from Benghazi/Libya

      Great informative article!

      From my experience, IBS makes affected persons surrounded all the time by thoughts of fear of having cancer. It literally distracts the patient from enjoying a normal life, rendering him/her always occupied by medical consultations, trying different remedies , doing a lot of tests and imaging, to get lost in a vicious cycle.

      That's why a multidisciplinary management approach may be necessary for a significant number of patients.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bac2basic, for some people IBS is more of an uncomfortable inconvenience, I suppose it's a question of degree. The abdominal pain and cramping are often relieved by going to the toilet, when most people have a flare-up it usually lasts about two to four days, then the symptoms improves, but nothing is set in stone; experiences differ.

      It looks like you're managing the condition well, as I'm sure you are already aware, diet is very important so good luck, take care and my best to you.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 4 years ago from Spain

      Hi Tobusiness.

      I have struggled with IBS on and off for years, very strangely though I only ever experienced pain on one or two occasions, I wonder if I am alone in this ?

      Great hub and good to get the information doctors are often too busy to give.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Hi there HSchneider, thank you for reading this, ulcerative colitis can be a very unpleasant condition, but you are right, everyone is different and what works for one, may not work for another. It's good that you've managed to keep it in check by eliminating coffee, it's strange, isn't it ? How the culprit always happens to be something we love!!... Good luck, and keep up the good work.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great informational Hub, tobusiness. I suffer from both IBS and ulcerative colitis. I have found that better dietary habits have helped me immensely. Everyone is different though, and everyone must find what works for the. I eliminated coffee from my diet and the results were remarkable. I am a coffee lover so this was quite difficult.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Doc, many thanks for stopping by, much appreciated.

    • profile image

      lovedoctor926 4 years ago

      Voting up awesome & useful information. I agree with you. Less anxiety= less stress and reduced symptoms. I've read about this condition before. Thanks for sharing.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      dragonflyfla, I'm sorry to hear about your IBS, I think you need a salsa recipe without the tomatoes, unfortunately it wouldn't taste as good. Thank you for stopping by, my best to you.

    • dragonflyfla profile image

      dragonflyfla 4 years ago from South Florida

      I have IBS that manifest itself through a small area on my skin. If I watch my diet it behaves, but if I eat certain foods such as tomatoes it acts up! I love salsa so it is a challenge.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      You are absolutely right, prevention is so much better in the long run. thank you for the visit and comment, much appreciated.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

      Very thorough information on this ailment. Many of the suggestions for treatment are things we should be doing whether we have IBS or not. Voted up.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Hi Jamie, it occurred to me yesterday that I haven't seen you about, and I must come over for a visit.

      Glad to see you, and it's very good to know you are managing your IBS so well, there are so many people with this condition. I hope all is well with you, my best wishes to you all.

    • tobusiness profile image
      Author

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      girishpuri, sorry to hear that you suffer from this condition, but I'm happy to know I was able to help you understand it more fully. Thank you for stopping by, good luck and best wishes.

      Jo

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 5 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      Yes, i have IBS and your article helped me a lot in understanding the problem and the solutions, very useful hub for me, thank you so much.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      I suffer from this most embarrasing of ailments. I want to thank you for writing this hub, because I have quite alcohol, smoking, and large meals and have lost most of my symptoms. I rarely may find myself in an embarrassing situation if I go out to a big meal or eat too much. Thank you. Jamie

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Pharmacist2013, Thank you for stopping by.

    • pharmacist2013 profile image

      pharmacist2013 5 years ago

      very interesting hub!

    • tobusiness profile image
      Author

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Michelle, if your hubby is experiencing these symptoms you should get him to see his doctor as a matter of urgency, to rule out more serious bowel disorders. It could well be IBS, since a large per cent of any given population are said to display the symptom but it's best to know for sure. Thank you for stopping by, as always very much appreciated. Take care and all the best.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      One2get2no, thank you for the visit and comment, I'm glad you find this useful. My best to you.

    • one2get2no profile image

      Philip Cooper 5 years ago from Olney

      Extremely interesting and useful hub. Thank you.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Jo, thanks for the tips and the causes of IBS. I think my hubby could have it because he experiences these symptoms at times so I'll forward this hub to him. A useful hub which I vote across and share.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Kashmir, very nice to see you, thanks for the visit and tremendous comment, very much appreciated.

      My best wishes to you.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      I heard of Irritable Bowel Syndrome but did not know much about it. Thanks for all this great and useful information within this well written hub.

      Vote up and more !!!

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Mhatter, nice to see you, thanks for stopping by.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this interesting article.

    • tobusiness profile image
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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Billy, thanks for stopping by, always appreciated.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting hub; I knew some of this but you were very thorough in your report. Great job!

    • tobusiness profile image
      Author

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      JohnKadu123, Thank you for the visit and for providing my first comment.

      Yes, of course you're right, people with IBS do experience similar symptoms to the more serious diseases, which is why it is so important to contact the doctor sooner rather than later, to rule them out. It will also help psychologically, to know it is not so serious. Less anxiety = less stress and reduced symptoms.

    • Johnkadu123 profile image

      Johnkadu123 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      This is a useful hub that talks of a serious problem. I also wanted to point out the fact that if you ignore the symptoms associated with IBS you may actually be sitting on the time bomb that is bowel cancer.